Being that Leads to Doing

Swans floating on a peaceful lake under a setting sun - being

No Thing

There’s a story told of a Bodhisattva who went to the mountains to meditate and teach. He had special powers, such as flying and hearing people’s thoughts. He built a Sangha, and five hundred holy men came to there.

One day, when the chief follower brought half the community into the woods to gather food, the Bodhisattva lay down to die. As was the tradition, those who had remained behind sat with him, and as the end came near, they asked him, “What was the greatest thing you achieved in your lifetime?”

“No thing,” their teacher said. Then he died.

Nothing? Their teacher accomplished nothing? He must have been a fake. Disappointed, they cremated his body without ceremony. A few days later, the foragers returned to discover the Bodhisattva was dead.

“Did the master tell you his greatest accomplishment?” the chief holy man asked them.

“He said he accomplished nothing in all his life,” they answered, “so we burned him without honors.”

“But you did not understand,” the lead follower cried out. “Our great teacher did not mean he achieved ‘nothing,’ but the great insight of ‘no thing.’ In other words, the names we give to things are not their true names. There is no ‘this’ or ‘that.’ There is only the one.” [1]

More Than Enlightenment

This is the realization of enlightenment, the wisdom beyond wisdom, the knowing that cannot be expressed in words. For some, the point of a spiritual life is to reach this understanding. Christians, for instance, might talk of a union with God, Hindus of mukti, which is the release from the wheel of suffering. Enlightenment becomes a stage to reach, a state of beingness. For some, it is as if, once we arrive at this wondrous expansiveness, nothing is left for us to do.

Certainly, some communities endorse inner reflection and enlightenment at the expense of everything else. Some individuals find that, once they discover stillness, nothing else matters to them. When we touch the totality of Isness, we touch a peace beyond knowing. It can be addictive, this place of bliss. Some of us want to remain there forever.

Yet we are alive, embedded in bodies. Even if we are “spiritual beings having a human experience,” a quote often attributed to Pierre Tielhard de Chardin, surely our humanness counts for something. Life is meant to be lived, and living means to act. Have we been born into bodies just so we might sit in appreciation of our oneness, gaze into eternity, revel in the magnificence of the holy?

Taking Responsibility

Of course, if everyone did this, I suppose there would be more war, no hatred or violence or oppression. There wouldn’t be much of anything else, either. Navel gazers aren’t particularly productive.

Fortunately, Buddhism isn’t about chasing after bliss. It is about seeing clearly, about living mindfully, accepting reality as it shows itself, not as we imagine it to be. So often, our longings and fears create a veil through which we see the world, and the world becomes, in our minds, a caricature of itself. This skewed vision allows us to hate.

First, then, we must learn to see.

This seeing, this being one with life and all its pieces, is what the Bodhisattva vows to encourage in herself and others. Meditation is one way to build this capacity for mindfulness, for seeing truth, for living skillfully. Yet the Bodhisattva doesn’t withdraw from the world. Instead, she vows to serve it.

Some Bodhisattvas, such as the leader of the community in our story, do this by teaching. At times, they teach in remote Sanghas. Others engage in the muddy, messy work of the world: feeding children, housing the homeless, ministering to the sick, opening the mind to love, opening the heart to stillness, feeding the body so the soul might flourish. We cannot seek enlightenment when we are cold, hungry, hunted, alone. When we see clearly, we understand this. We also understand that we, along with everyone else, are responsible for the brokenness around us. We must act to change the world.

Swans floating on a peaceful lake under a setting sun - being
Photo by Julia Solonina – Learning How to Be

Saved from Our Own Karma

We realize this because a magical thing happens when we find ourselves connected to source. When we become enlightened, our compassion deepens. We experience a love beyond all loves, a love that is not content simply to beam. It wants to move and act and do in the world. At times, that movement may be silent, still, and utterly receptive, yet it is not only that. To act sometimes means putting our bodies and our salvation at risk.

The Buddhist writer, Stephen Jenkins, tells the story about one of the Buddha’s past lives. At that time, he was the captain of a ship. While at sea with five hundred passengers, he discovered that one of them intended to kill everyone else on board. Knowing that this would be a horrible burden of karma for the murderer, and wanting to save the other passengers from suffering, the captain knew he had to stop this man. Yet if he told the others what he intended, they would surely become enraged and kill the criminal. That would not help them, for they would then have committed a terrible act that would stain their own souls.

Thus, the captain decided he himself would have to kill the man. With great compassion, he stabbed him to death. In this way, he saved the others from dying and from becoming murderers themselves.

Being and Doing

Years ago, after I’d preached a sermon about social justice at the church where I served as a consulting minister, a congregant asked me why we UUs felt we had to do so much. Why couldn’t we just focus on spiritual growth? Why not just be? After all, that’s what Buddhists do, don’t they?

Some Buddhists, perhaps. In all religious traditions, there are those who choose to pray, meditate, and sit in contemplation to the exclusion of reaching out to others. Yet in every tradition, there are also those who feel called to serve. Engaged Buddhism, for example, is a practice of action that arises out of the compassion we feel when enlightenment strikes. The Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh said, “Once there is seeing, there must be acting.” [2]

Once we touch enlightenment, even if only on the edges and only for an instant, we see the oneness that we once thought was the many. When we see this, how can we not act to ease the suffering around us? Action arising out of compassion is what Hanh called “engaged Buddhism.”

Ram Dass, in his book Grist for the Mill, speaks of this same concept in terms of “no thing.” As we saw above, there is no this or that, there is just no thing. If there is no thing, then there is not really a us. As Ram Dass put it, we are “nobody special.” [3] When we understand this, we can stop trying to change others, for we are them, and they are us, and judgment makes no sense.

To Be So We Might Do

O the other hand, this doesn’t mean we should stop trying to influence or inspire them. After all, injustice is not a myth. The suffering we see is real, and those miserable souls don’t deserve the life they have. Theirs is not a punishment for past karma or sin. In this country, and elsewhere in the world, we have created a system of caste and race and class that relegates some people to the bottom and some to the top. When we understand that we are all one, we will know this is not just.

Though we can make our pain worse by the stories we tell about it, that doesn’t mean that our physical bodies are illusory, that pain is meaningless, that brutality is acceptable. We are one. We are our brother’s keepers. Thus, we are responsible for the suffering of others. We are responsible for one another.

If one sentient being remains imprisoned, we are all imprisoned. Nelson Mandela said, “The oppressed and oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.” [4] The Bodhisattva commits to liberating them both.

The captain could have ignored his insight, let the murderer kill his passengers, or he could have warned the passengers and let them deal with things. Yet he was the captain. He was the enlightened one. As a Bodhisattva, he accepted responsibility for the karma of those around him.

When we see clearly, we understand that we are all one, that there is no this or that. Thus, we will know when and how to act.

Nobody We Are Not

Not everyone has taken a vow to challenge abuse, to protest oppression, to resist injustice. Most people content themselves with pursuing their personal goals and increasing their wealth. But we can choose the path of the Bodhisattva. We can let go of our material striving, give up our lust for pleasure. Instead, we can make a covenant to serve life. We can vow to teach, protect, bring all souls to enlightenment one day.

We’re not likely to do this, however, until we understand that we are “nobody special.” That’s how we know we are one. If we are nobody special, we are nobody, and if we are “nobody, there is nobody we’re not.” [5] Thus, we are everybody. Our self-interest is everyone’s self-interest, and everyone’s joy is our own. If we understand this, then whatever action we take—whether it be the compassionate killing of a murderer or the peaceful protesting of violence against the poor—that action will arise out of “total love for the other person.” [6] Two actions might look the same, but if they arise out of different desires and emotions, they will affect the world in different ways, causing different results, and affecting our souls differently.

Actions that arise out of the awareness of our nothingness, and of our everythingness, are a kind of engaged Buddhism. In The New Social Face of Buddhism, Ken Jones explains that such action embodies the “compassion, interdependence, selflessness, and the practice of morality and mindfulness” that are part of Buddhist wisdom. [6] To act from Buddhist wisdom, we must experience that wisdom. Before we can do skillfully, we must learn how to be.

Do Not Speak Evil

Not only Buddhists understand this. From Joan Chittister’s book about the desert fathers comes the story of a brother who once asked Abba Hierax how to be saved. The abba answered that the brother should do as he normally does, eat when hungry and drink when thirsty, “only do not speak evil of anyone, and you will be saved.” [7]

As simple as that. Do not speak evil. Ever. That’s a nice idea, but how does it save us?

Before we can do evil, we must speak it, even if only in our own minds. If we commit atrocities—slavery, genocide, bombings, mass shootings—there must first be anger, resentment, greed, embarrassment, hatred, grievance, all these reflected outward onto someone else. We must churn inside with needs and struggles, yet take no responsibility for our own emotions. Instead, we must blame others for our suffering. How else would we learn to hate them so?

When we allow such thoughts to ruminate within our minds, we will eventually speak them to others. We will seek out sympathetic listeners, people to affirm our anger and judgment. From there, it is easy to start seeing the other person as less than, inhuman, untouchable. We influence those around us, and are influenced by them. Soon we will have turned another human being into an enemy.

How we act depends on what we think and what we speak. Abba Hierax warns us not to start on such a journey. If we refrain from speaking evil, even in our own minds, doing evil will not even occur to us.

In the Service of Life

Whenever we resist speaking evil, we take one step toward salvation. We help to save ourselves and, since we are all one, we also help save others. By resisting evil of thought, word, and deed, we help change the world.

The more clearly we see, the easier such resistance becomes. That’s because seeing the truth allows our inner wisdom and outer compassion to combine. We act with mindfulness in our relationships. We become engaged in making a difference in the world. This engagement can take the form of praying for the liberation of all beings, living in alternative ways that reduce pollution and carbon production, healing and feeding and praying with others, teaching and writing, or promoting societal transformation through political activity.

The enlightened one does not decide that, since all things are illusory, evil does not matter. It does matter. When one of us is imprisoned, we are all imprisoned. When one is suffering, all are suffering.

Nor does the enlightened one “fight” oppression. She resists it, not with force or anger, but with love.

The founders of most religions taught their followers this kind of loving resistance, just as most religions calls on us to act out of compassion. We are called to be, but also to do. Yet before our doing can serve the cause of freedom, enlightenment, and salvation, it must arise out of our being. Meditation, prayer, sacrifice, stillness are practices that bring us into relationship with all that is. Our practices allow us to see that all is holy, and when we see, we cannot help but act. From the wisdom that arises out of even a glimmer of enlightenment, we will know what next to do. We will know how to act in the service of life.

In faith and fondness,



  1. “Achieving Nothing (No Thing),” Jataka Tales: Vol. 2,, accessed 7/13/21.
  2. Quoted in Hunt-Perry, Patricia and Lyn Fine, “All Buddhism Is Engaged: Thich Nhat Hanh and the Order of Interbeing,” Christopher S. Queen, Engaged Buddhism in the West, Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2000, 35-66, 53.
  3. Dass, Ram and Stephen Levine, Grist for the Mill, Oakland, CA: Unity Press, 1977, 144.
  4. Mandela, Nelson, Long Walk to Freedom, New York: Little, Brown, & Co., ebook, 2008. 1256.
  5. Dass 144.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Jones, Ken, The New Social Face of Buddhism: An Alternative Sociopolitical Perspective, Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2003, 181.
  8. Chittister, Joan, In God’s Holy Light: Wisdom from the Desert Monastics, Cincinnati, OH: Franciscan Media, 2015, 25.

Photo byJulia Solonina onUnsplash

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